We live in uncertain times… This is the understatement of January 2022.
Just when it seemed like the classroom was set to return back to some form of normalcy, yet more complications with the COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools back into a remote virtual environment. There seems to be no end in sight, and meanwhile, we seem to be no less divided as a populace than we were a year ago.
Has the malaise of the day begun to affect your classes? If so, it's important to take a moment or two out of your lesson plans to focus on the mental health of your students. Here are four tips for how to prioritize the mental wellbeing of your students during uncertain times.
1. Don't be afraid to address the elephant in the room.
Class is a time where students and educators come together with the common goal of academic growth in a given subject. In theory, the outside world should never directly impact the day's lesson. In practice, however, this is not always easy. During a simpler time, it's easy to temporarily put aside your personal concerns and focus all your energy on the classroom assignments at hand.
But what if a national tragedy has taken place the night before your morning class? Worse still, what if your students have been directly affected by a tragedy within their school? Situations like these are never going to be conducive to a healthy learning environment, especially if you're willing to ignore the complex feelings of your students.
If you sense that your students have all their bandwidth taken up by an elephant in the room, call it out! While you shouldn't force a discussion where it isn't wanted, consider offering a safe space for the students to express their feelings. Perhaps offer to stick around after class in case anyone wants to vent to you privately.
Even if no such discussion takes place, you will make your students feel acknowledged — sometimes, that's enough.
2. Find creative ways to break up your classroom routine.
During uncertain times, maintaining motivation within the classroom can be a challenge for everyone: students and educators alike. It's difficult to keep focused on any given task when the reason for accomplishing the task itself is clouded in uncertainty. This is true for anyone, of course, but it's especially true for teenagers who have more than enough uncertainty to deal with in their daily lives.
If you find that your students are caught in their own collective state of limbo, consider breaking up your own classroom routine. Have you introduced any icebreakers into your lessons lately? Do you typically open your classes with a Do Now problem? If so, have you considered dropping it, or surprising your students with a creative approach to it?
By breaking up the standard flow of your class, you are signaling to your students that you are sensing their lack of energy and are willing to do whatever it takes to engage their minds.
3. Introduce breathing exercises to start your classes.
What's a quick way for everybody to relieve stress? A little bit of deep breathing. Are you faced with a student roster brimming with academic anxiety? Well, have you considered introducing this into your classrooms?
This suggestion may not take in every classroom environment, but much like meditation, breathing exercises have been shown to reduce stress and improve moods in students who are likely coming into your classes feeling anxious and overwhelmed. This shouldn't take up a significant amount of the lesson, of course, but even spending a minute or two on deep breathing will go a long way toward shaking off some of the stressors that an uncertain time can bring about in young people.
4. Be willing to be vulnerable in front of your students.
It goes without saying that your students are human beings, hence the need to think about and prioritize their mental wellbeing in times of uncertainty. But don't forget that there's another human being you need to keep in mind: yourself.
An outstanding educator is one who is able to connect with their students on a deeper emotional level, inspiring them to invest their energy in learning and developing themselves beyond the walls of the classroom. This connection cannot happen if the educator is emotionally guarded or unwilling to allow vulnerability into the lesson plan.
So if these uncertain times are affecting you as well, don't be afraid to share your feelings with your students. While their mental health needs to remain the priority, your own mental health should never be ignored. Your students will trust you more if you allow yourself to express how you feel; they will relate to you, and through that, they can find their own strength to carry on. Best of all, you will gain more strength through watching their strength blossom. This beautiful feedback loop is its own reward during any and all uncertain times.